BIOGRAPHIC: “This one might be a little stinky,” says Tenaya Norris, a scientist at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. Research assistant Barbie Halaska carries a limp, sodden carcass into the room and drapes it across a gleaming steel table.

Even before the researchers slice into the tiny, brown California sea lion pup and remove its internal organs, the animal is mostly skin and bones. The young male was less than a year old when he arrived. He hung on for ten days, but was already suffering the effects of severe malnourishment when he arrived—he was about one-quarter the size of a healthy pup—and the staff were unable to save him.

Norris stretches out the subject’s flippers. Picking up a scalpel, she gets ready to open the animal from chin to tail. The pup occupies just one narrow corner of a table large enough for an animal many times this size. And the center has seen its fair share of those. The facility takes in several hundred distressed animals each year, from sea lions to elephant seals to the occasional dolphin or sea turtle. Scientists and volunteers do their best to rehabilitate the sick animals and return them to the ocean. But about half will end up on the metal table instead. Each death is a loss—and an opportunity.

Every animal that dies here is studied exhaustively. Researchers carve the bodies into samples for dozens of ongoing studies. They’re especially interested in the carcasses of California sea lions, which are helping them study a mysterious and aggressive cancer that’s plaguing the species. Read more.